On March 13 the Jubilee Auditorium should have been resounding with Anne Boleyn going mad as she’s about to be executed on orders from her husband, King Henry VIII, in Donizetti’s searing opera Anna Bolena.
Instead, the stage will be empty and the hall dark. Up in the industrial stretches of 128 Street, where Edmonton Opera builds its sets, the power tools are silent, the rehearsal halls deserted.
The pandemic has hit opera companies particularly hard because, by its very nature, live opera — singing voices and casts of many — is exactly what medical officers of health don’t want to see at the moment. Going virtual has similar performance problems.
Edmonton Opera, though, was not going to take the pandemic lying down. It’s been hatching an imaginative response far beyond just presenting excepts on YouTube, and it’s called the Wild Rose Opera Project.
The company has commissioned four brand new mini-operas specifically designed for COVID conditions. Each will be about eight minutes long, with one or two singers, and filmed and streamed online.
“It is such a rare opportunity to commission new works in the opera world,” said Edmonton Opera CEO Tim Yakimec. “With the Wild Rose Opera Project, we are able to premiere new short works from four composers who have links to Alberta.”
Each operatic short will have two things in common: the librettist, Pulitzer Prize-winning Royce Vavrek, and an overarching theme of exploring mental health issues using characters with ties to the Alberta landscape.
“It was incredibly positive how the project came to be,” explains Yakimec. “After meeting librettist Royce Vavrek a few years ago, we mentioned we needed to look for an opportunity to work together — and lo and behold, the pandemic offered that opening with help from Epcor’s Heart and Soul Fund.”
This is very much an Alberta project. Vavrek was born in Grande Prairie and is Canada’s most successful librettist. He now lives and works in New York, and is perhaps best known for his libretto for composer Du Yun’s 2016 opera Angel’s Bone.
“It’s really, really, really exciting for me to do work in my home country,” Vavrek said. “I’ve wanted to come home and find opportunities, so it really does feel like my hometown opera in many ways.”
Of the four composers, the best known is probably Edmonton’s John Estacio. His operatic short features a gay farmer suffering from depression who comes to terms with his identity through the devotion of his farm dog.
For Edmonton-born and Juno-award winning composer Vivian Fung, who now lives in California, this project creates an opportunity she’s been waiting for.
“Royce and I have been wanting to work together for a few years now, but just hadn’t had the right opportunity to do so. This is like a dream come true,” said Fung. “Opera has been on my mind for a while now. Incorporating elements of my family history into the story is something I have been always wanting to do. It is so wonderful that I get to realize this collaboration in my hometown Edmonton.”
Her piece is about a family dealing with PTSD inherited from a history of genocide, and draws on the experience of Fung’s family in the Far East. Older members of the family try to conceal the trauma, while the young want to come to terms with it.
Toronto-based Ian Cusson is a composer of Métis and French-Canadian descent who is currently composer-in-residence with the Canadian Opera Company. With Vavrek, he’s chosen to do a “micro-adaptation” of Thomas King’s widely praised recent novel, Indians on Vacation. A contemporary Indigenous couple holiday in Prague and there the husband confronts his demons of depression and despair.
The fourth composer is Edmontonian Bryce Kulak, who is a songwriter in the cabaret tradition, and describes himself as “a small boy with a big imagination who makes even bigger sounds.” His opera is set in Alberta, in the Badlands, and is an operatic portrait of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s.
Librettist Vavrek was inspired by a conversation with a medical practitioner, explaining, “There are a lot of pieces of art that talk about, or try to render the experience of memory loss, or portray the protagonist, the person who’s going through the ordeal. But, so often, we forget about the caregiver.”
“The only parameter for each piece,” said Yakimec, “was limited by length, a connection to mental health and themes that could resonate with Alberta’s landscape and/or people. It is pretty incredible where each of the creators has gone with this, such varied approaches and storylines. We have an extraordinary wealth of talent with this group, and I can’t wait to share their work with everyone.”
If all goes well, and COVID restrictions allow, Edmonton Opera plans to stream the Wild Rose Opera Project in the summer or early fall. And hopefully by then, Edmonton Opera will know when it can return to the thunder of Donizetti on the big Jubilee stage.